IAC Recommends Basic Reform of IPCC Management Structure

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) needs to fundamentally reform its management structure and strengthen its procedures to handle ever larger and increasingly complex climate assessments as well as the more intense public scrutiny, says a report from the InterAcademy Council (IAC), an Amsterdam-based organization of the world’s science academies.

The report, “Climate Change Assessments: Review of the Processes and Procedures of the IPCC,” was released last month.

"Operating under the public microscope the way IPCC does requires strong leadership, the continued and enthusiastic participation of distinguished scientists, an ability to adapt, and a commitment to openness if the value of these assessments to society is to be maintained," said Harold T. Shapiro, president emeritus and professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University in the United States and chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Roseanne Diab, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa and professor emeritus of environmental sciences and honorary senior research associate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, served as vice chair of the committee, which included experts from several countries and various disciplines.

The World Meteorological Organization established IPCC and the United Nations Environment Programme to inform policy decisions through periodic assessments of what is known about the physical scientific aspects of climate change, its global and regional impacts, and options for adaptation and mitigation. Representatives of 194 participating governments make up the panel, which sets the scope of the assessments, elects the Bureau that oversees them, and approves the Summaries for Policymakers that accompany the massive assessment reports themselves, which are prepared by thousands of scientists who volunteer for three Working Groups.

Controversies have erupted over IPCC's perceived impartiality toward climate policy and the accuracy of its reports. This prompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri to issue a letter on March 10 requesting the IAC review.

“The IPCC will be strengthened by the IAC review and by others of its kind this year,” said Pachauri, Ph.D. “We already have the highest confidence in the science behind our assessments. We’re now pleased to receive recommendations on how to further strengthen our own policies and procedures.” The other reviews completed this year were administered by the
House of Commons, March 21; Oxburgh, April 14; Penn State (review of Michael Mann), July 1; Dutch PBL, July 5; Muir Russell, July 7; and EPA, July 29.

The IAC report makes several recommendations, including:

  • establishing an executive committee to act on the panel’s behalf and ensure that an ongoing decision-making capability is maintained;
  • engaging individuals from outside IPCC or even outside the climate science community;
  • appointing an executive director — with the status of a senior scientist equal to that of the Working Group co-chairs — to lead the Secretariat, handle day-to-day operations, and speak on behalf of the organization;
  • limiting to one the terms of the IPCC chair, the proposed executive director, and Working Group chairs; and
  • developing formal qualifications for the chair and all other Bureau members as well as a rigorous conflict-of-interest policy for senior IPCC leadership and all authors, review editors, and staff responsible for report content.

IAC concluded that the panel's review process is thorough, but stronger enforcement of existing procedures could minimize the number of errors. To that end, IPCC should encourage review editors to fully exercise their authority to ensure that all review comments are adequately considered. Review editors should also ensure that genuine controversies are reflected in the report and be satisfied that due consideration was given to properly documented alternative views. Lead authors should explicitly document that the full range of thoughtful scientific views has been considered.

The council recommended that guidelines for the use of gray literature (unpublished or non-peer reviewed material) be made more specific — including adding guidelines on what types of literature are unacceptable — and strictly enforced to ensure that the literature is appropriately flagged.

The council also called for more consistency in how the Working Groups characterize uncertainty. In the last assessment, each Working Group used a different variation of IPCC’s uncertainty guidelines, and the council found that the guidance is not always followed. The Working Group II report, for example, contains some statements that were assigned high confidence but for which there is little evidence. In future assessments, all Working Groups should qualify their understanding of a topic by describing the amount of evidence available and the degree of agreement among experts; this is known as the level of understanding scale. And all Working Groups should use a probability scale to quantify the likelihood of a particular event occurring, but only when there is sufficient evidence to do so.

IPCC’s slow and inadequate response to revelations of errors in the last assessment, as well as complaints that its leaders have gone beyond IPCC’s mandate to be “policy relevant, not policy prescriptive” in their public comments, have made communications a critical issue. The IAC report recommends that IPCC complete and implement a communications strategy now in development. The strategy should emphasize transparency and include a plan for rapid but thoughtful response to crises. The relevance of the assessments to stakeholders also needs to be considered, which may require more derivative products that are carefully crafted to ensure consistency with the underlying assessments. Guidelines are also needed on who can speak on behalf of IPCC and how to do so while remaining within the bounds of IPCC reports and mandates.

The IAC credited IPCC with having proved its adaptability, and urged it to be even more creative in maintaining flexibility in the character and structure of assessments, including possibly releasing the Working Group I report, which examines the physical scientific aspects of climate change, a few years ahead so the other Working Groups can take advantage of the results.

Jennifer Morgan, World Resources Institute’s program director for climate and energy, said: “Importantly, this review found no evidence that alters the fundamental conclusions of the IPCC that climate change is occurring and it is ‘very likely’ caused by human activity. These conclusions have been recently reaffirmed by several leading scientific authorities, including the National Academy of Sciences.

“The recommendations of the IAC will help bolster confidence in the IPCC – which is comprised of thousands of the world’s leading climate scientists – and will ensure that the IPCC continues to be a leading source of scientific information on climate change," she added.

National Center for Policy Analysis Senior Fellow H. Sterling Burnett said the review "further underscores the IPCC's shoddy review standards and lack of scientific rigor.

"This review was long overdue and only further supports claims of prominent skeptics that the IPCC has operated as a political rather than a scientific body,” Burnett said. “The IAC report recognizes the IPCC’s apparently deliberate misrepresentations have contributed heavily to growing skepticism about the dire predictions of climate calamity.”

The IAC report is expected to be considered at the 32nd Plenary Session of the IPCC in Busan, South Korea, Oct. 11-14. The report was sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme.

comments powered by Disqus